Edinburgh & New York: Canongate, 2002.
£9.99, $18.00, 126 pages, ISBN 1-84195-274-5.
Université de Rouen
In my Cercles review of Pandora's Handbag, I pointedly
praised Elizabeth Young's handling of "alternative" writers
like Dennis Cooper. I am still not very satisfied with the adjective
"alternative", but it is hard to find a suitable way to
qualify Cooper's very particular fiction. I then stated that his subject-matter
was mostly the evisceration of teenage boys. This has, I am glad to
write, somewhat changed. He is still the heir of Sade, OConnor,
Genet, Burroughs, Bataille, even Céline. He is still the literary
equivalent of what a cinematic cross between Pier Paolo Pasolini and
Gregg Araki would be, and he occasionally continues to recall Nelson
Algren and John Rechy. But even if few boys are eviscerated in My
Loose Thread, the novel is a far cry from the basically mainstream
works of Gary Indiana or Alan Hollinghurst (I wonder why reviewers
keep on making those groundless comparisons).
Coopers success is very much a succès de scandale;
as he himself told Elizabeth Young: Im much more famous
than Im read. Im famous for this gay thing, transgressive
sex, for being experimental and being wild and being into punk.
Queer Nation activists have sent him death threats. Few creators are
as sulfurous as Cooper today. Even pop musicians such as Blur's Alex
James or, more surprisingly, Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor and Marilyn
Manson ran away from him.
Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson both refused to let me write cover
stories on them for Spin Magazine because they were afraid
I'd out them as poseurs. They consider themselves to be very daring
and extreme, and I think the fact that I'm more daring and extreme
intimidated them. (3 A.M. Magazine, interview Stephen Lucas,
My Loose Thread (a tremendously metafictional title) is different
from Cooper's previous novels simply because he has finished his (in)famous
five-novel George Miles cycle, composed of Closer (1989), Frisk
(1991), Try (1994), Guide (1997) and Period (2000).
God save us from biographical criticism, but there apparently was
a George Miles in Cooper's life, whose tragic life and mental condition,
along with Cooper's own literarily welcome neuroses inspired those
five novels. "I sometimes think I only write to get this shit
out of my head," he told The Independent's Nick Taylor.
Don't we all? Nick Taylor in a 1998 interview mentioned Cooper's "legendary
lackadaisical style", his "well-crafted careless teenage
whine". If the subject-matter were different, his characters
"could easily be speaking straight from soapland," wrote
Taylor. Actually, no soap or sitcom writer would dare go that far.
TV's fictional teenagers do occasionally come up with complete sentences,
which sometimes include words of more than one syllable.
But that is the whole point. With dialogue that often sounds as if
it had been recorded over lunch at some Californian high school integrated
in highly intricate structural feats, Cooper speaks of America's moral
decay and mental sickness. He is really a moralist, just like Bret
Easton Ellis. If you thought Sam Mendes's 1999 American Beauty
was making a powerful statement, read Cooper, his novels make American
Beauty as socially significant as garlic bread.
My Loose Thread is about a teenager named Larry, a splendidly
unreliable narrator, who may or may not be gay (but what is gay anyway?),
who may or may not have killed one of his best friends (but what is
friendship anyway?), and who may or may not have (had) incestuous
relationships with his thirteen-year-old brother Jim. One thing is
certain: he is very perturbed, to put it mildly. The book is obsessed
with the notion of truth, in the way Greek classics or Romantic poetry
could be, but also evoking some of Jorge Luis Borges or John Barth's
musings on the subject. What is truth? What is fiction? Who are those
high school Nazis really? A little notebook / diary kept by a boy
who may be dead may hold some answers. My Loose Thread was
largely inspired by the Columbine massacre, and other violent episodes
of American teen hell. It marks a significant departure from the George
Miles cycle in its relative absence of adult figures. There are no
thirty-something "perverts" obsessing about the pale bodies
of white underage boys in this novel, only white underage boys obsessing
about themselves in a characteristically meaningless world, albeit
The readers who mistook "Dennis Cooper" the narrator with
Dennis Cooper the author in parts of the George Miles cycle will understand
I think with My Loose Thread that nothing is so simple in Cooper's
fiction. Drug-induced hallucinations, therapeutic exorcising fantasies
and literary exercices de style are not to be confused with
Critics are divided when it comes to naming Cooper's literary ancestors
(and why are we so obsessed with literary lineage anyway, is it our
usual fear of not finding the right little box?), but I am positive
no-one will deny his heir is in more ways than one the remarkable
teenage author J. T. Leroy, one of the best things to have come from
(the wrong side of the tracks in) America lately. With two books,
Sarah (2000) and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things
(2001), Leroy has forced many critics to reconsider their definition
of literature. Unsurprisingly, Cooper and Leroy have become friends.
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